In Brief: The Truth About the Masking Madness
Why did “the experts” insist on intervention they previously thought was useless?
Feel safe in a mask? Wouldn’t touch one with a 10-foot pole? Somewhere in between? Well, how about the most basic of questions: Do masks work to prevent COVID infection? Author Ian Miller dared to find out, and reporter Geoff Shullenberger reviews his work:
Last summer’s Delta wave and the divergent policy response to it, Shullenberger said, “created an opportunity to examine the impact of mask mandates.” Unfortunately, virtually no one care to take that opportunity. “The reason, most of them would likely have said if pressed on the subject, was there was nothing to learn: ‘the science’ was settled.”
For their part, critics of masking and other Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) typically relied on principled assertions of freedom. This gave them little reason to examine the evidentiary basis of these policies, since they would have rejected them on moral grounds even if they worked. Only a few sceptical observers drilled into the data that could be found on sites such as the New York Times — even if the paper’s own reporters made little of it. The most prolific of these was Ian Miller, who over the past two years has published copious data-driven commentary on the track record of various Covid public health interventions.
Miller arrives time and again at the same conclusion: that the ad hoc pandemic mitigation policies rolled out since 2020 have systematically failed to achieve goals. Miller has now compiled one subset of his graphs and commentaries into a book titled Unmasked: The Global Failure of Covid Mask Mandates which focuses solely on the most ubiquitous pandemic containment strategy deployed by governments worldwide: masks.
The endorsement of masking by medical bodies and public health authorities worldwide, Miller shows, entailed the abandonment of a longstanding view that masks were a useless and even harmful intervention. Over the previous decades, numerous randomised controlled trials had assessed the efficacy of masks in controlling the spread of respiratory viruses like influenza, and pandemic simulations had evaluated their potential.
A document published by the World Health Organisation in 2019 framed the results of these studies in no uncertain terms: “there was no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza”. It’s unsurprising, then, that when the CDC briefed reporters on the pandemic in February of 2020, masking was not even mentioned among the NPIs that might be deployed. The UK government, too, stated early in 2020 that there was no evidence to support masking.
Why did the experts ignore their own pre-pandemic recommendations? Politics and virtue signaling. The data and the science simply didn’t change.
In light of the earlier consensus, Miller’s findings in Unmasked should not be surprising. As we might have predicted based on a plethora of trials and meta-analyses published prior to the pandemic, mask mandates have had little to no demonstrable impact on curbing the spread of the virus. Miller reaches this conclusion by comparing areas with mask mandates of longer and shorter duration with each other and with areas that never imposed mandates at all. The results, he shows, simply do not support the standard adage that “masks save lives”.
There isn’t clear cut evidence that masks did nothing, but likewise there’s no evidence they did anything.
The most disastrous failing of the experts has been their lack of curiosity about the actual results of the policies they have staked their reputations on. Mask mandates have been, in Miller’s phrase, “a population-wide experiment”, but few within the US scientific and medical establishment have seemed interested in parsing the resulting data, leaving that task to outsiders like Miller. Astonishingly, there have been just two randomised controlled trials on masking published since the pandemic began. One found no significant effect at all, while the other found a small effect of 11% for surgical masks and no significant effect for cloth ones. The first was largely ignored or dismissed, while the second was optimistically glossed as proving that masks work.
Moreover, even the most bullish case for the technical efficacy of at least some higher-quality masks does not constitute a case for mask mandates, a distinction that most commentary elides. The only way to measure the efficacy of mandates is to look at their actual track record. This is what Miller has done, and the result, he argues, is clear: “mask mandates have demonstrated very little impact, if any, on case curves throughout the United States and in many other international locations.”
Miller is justifiably derisive about the experts who have oversold dubious policies at every turn, but the ironic implication of his book is that much of the expert guidance from prior to 2020 has been vindicated. Before Covid appeared, scientists and officials advised time and again that masks would be ineffective at containing a pandemic respiratory virus, and the evidence Miller has compiled suggests they were correct.
As for the politics, he explains:
It is not difficult to see why mask mandates proved irresistible to politicians. Masks are the perfect form of hygiene theatre, conveying an intuitive sense of safety regardless of demonstrable efficacy at scale. They also offload responsibility for controlling the pandemic to ordinary people. The overcrowding of ICUs can be blamed on the bad behavior of “anti-maskers”, rather than on the allocation of resources by governments and hospital CEOs. When cases and deaths spike, it is the fault of the citizenry, not the leadership.
And he concludes: “Making us all put masks on was the expert class’s mask-off moment — and what we can see now isn’t pretty.”
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